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Coronavirus: UK police to start ‘graduated withdrawal of service’ if outbreak worsens

‘Things will have to change and we will adjust our service accordingly,’ senior officer tells MPs

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Wednesday 18 March 2020 20:04 GMT
Coronavirus in numbers

Police will be forced to enact a “graduated withdrawal of service” from their normal duties if the coronavirus outbreak worsens, senior officers have said.

Emergency laws are being enacted to give officers the power to detain people with symptoms or force them to undergo testing.

But forces across the country are drawing up contingencies to lose up a fifth of their staff to illness or self-isolation, putting pressure on their capacity as they are required to take on new duties.

Deputy Chief Constable Paul Netherton, the national lead for civil contingencies, said the impact on policing depends how severe the UK epidemic becomes.

“At this moment in time we don’t see it impacting on day to day service delivery, but as things change and absence rises – and we can see that is coming – things will have to change and we will adjust our service accordingly,” he told the Home Affairs Committee.

“As things become more and more challenging, we will withdraw from some activities, prioritise, and take a graduated withdrawal of service approach.”

Mr Netherton said the decision on which services to withdraw is up to the chief constables of each regional force, but national guidance was being drawn up.

Responding to crimes and threats to public safety will be prioritised above routine patrols and neighbourhood policing, he said, admitting: “That will mean services are reduced in some areas.”

Mr Netherton said police leaders were planning for the “reasonable worst case scenario”, which he described as “quite scary” without giving details.

Assistant Chief Constable Owen Weatherill, strategic lead for the National Police Coordination Centre, said priorities would change between different forces but “the core functions we will deliver is around emergency response and threat to life”.

He told MPs: “There are quite a lot of things we can take away that don’t have a visible impact and won’t make the public feel less secure and safe.”

Cressida Dick: Met Police not ruled out boosting numbers in London amid Coronavirus

The officers were giving evidence for the Home Affairs Committee’s inquiry into the preparedness of police and other agencies for the coronavirus outbreak.

At the time of the hearing on Wednesday, 104 people with the virus had died in Britain and more than 2,600 cases had been confirmed.

Mr Netherton said police expected the key challenge to be supporting the NHS, and that fears of disorder and looting had not yet been realised.

“We have seen some panic buying when people think food will run out, but then they stop and the shops are restocked,” he added.

“I am seeing more altruistic behaviour by our communities than the opposite.”

Planners are using data from Italy and other countries with more advanced coronavirus outbreaks to predict changes in call patterns, crime and demand.

Police officers are not yet being given masks and protective equipment as standard, but can request them if they are visiting people with symptoms.

Some forces, including Devon and Cornwall, have created “covid cars” containing specialist kit that can be deployed to incidents where needed.

At least one police officer – in South Wales Police – has so far tested positive and many more are in isolation as a precaution.

Police officers will prioritise responding to emergencies and helping the NHS

Mr Netherton said new government guidance saying that anyone who has a family member with coronavirus symptoms must self-isolate for two weeks was having an impact on staffing.

“Our request is if we could speed up testing for emergency service workers,” he added.

The officers confirmed that discussions about drawing on support from the military were ongoing, but said there was no current indication that soldiers will be needed for police work.

“The military will probably be called on by the NHS before we need to do it,” Mr Weatherill said.

New laws give officers the power to direct a person with coronavirus symptoms for screening or assessment, or to forcibly isolate them.

Following concerns raised about the scope of the legislation, Mr Netherton said police would not use the powers “willy nilly”.

He added: “I wouldn’t want the public to think the police suddenly have draconian powers where they can lock up anyone when they cough – it is there to support the NHS.

“In the majority of cases there’s not going to be a problem because people will do what they’re asked to do.”

He said police already have the powers needed to enforce a lockdown of the type seen in France, if the government enacted it.

“It is definitely a phased approach,” Mr Netherton said. “The endgame is a vaccine and then we start to make sure everyone is immune.”

Officials from the Border Force were also called to give evidence amid criticism of a lack of mass health screening at airports.

Emma Moore, the chief operating officer, said only 34 people had either been identified or flagged themselves as having coronavirus symptoms when entering the UK.

“Temperature checks are not effective, and that has been the very clear scientific advice throughout,” she added.

Angela Perfect, coronavirus incident commander for the Border Force, said two hotels with a combined capacity of almost 600 beds were to be used as isolation centres for arriving migrants and asylum seekers.

Following calls to free people from immigration removal centres amid questions of whether such detention was legal at a time when people cannot be deported, she said there was “no plan to have a wholesale systematic release”.

Two detention centres near Heathrow Airport are currently quarantined for what is believed to be a seasonal flu outbreak, but officials admitted that detainees have not been tested for coronavirus.

A representative of the Immigration Services Union told MPs several members of staff have already been quarantined because of contact with Iranian migrants who had symptoms.

Lucy Moreton said there were no arrangements to test Border Force staff beyond those for the general public, even those who travel daily to and from France.

The Home Affairs Committee’s inquiry into preparedness for coronavirus continues.

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